How to get past the zero-sum debate over planned mosque near Ground Zero

The planned Islamic center near New York City's Ground Zero is trapped in forces far larger than the project itself. All sides in this debate would do well to read President Obama's 2009 speech in Cairo about US-Muslim relations.

A prime piece of Manhattan real estate is trapped in a confluence of disputes far more significant than the site’s intended purpose: to stand as the future home of an Islamic cultural center.

Can the project escape from the whirlwind and fulfill its purpose as a place of peace between religions?

Controversy over the planned “Ground Zero mosque” that is two blocks from the destroyed World Trade Center is being fueled by several powerful forces:

1. America’s hurt – in every way and at every level, as a country and as individuals – resulting from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which were carried out in the name of Islam.

2. Americans’ generally negative view of Islam: A January Gallup poll shows 43 percent of Americans admit to feeling at least “a little” prejudiced against Islam, while a third say their opinion is “not favorable at all.”

The temptation is to lump all Muslims together as intolerant and violent, or potentially so. Sadly, the Muslim world of about 1.57 billion people has not done enough to help dismantle this stereotype. Indeed, based on this year’s annual report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a federal body created in 1998, many Muslim countries have far to go when it comes to religious freedom and tolerance. The report cites Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, and Sudan as countries of particular concern, while placing Afghanistan, Egypt, Indonesia, and Turkey on its “watch” list.

3. Also at play in the mosque debate: intense political partisanship just before the midterm elections for Congress and as the 2012 presidential race warms up.

President Obama supports the constitutional right for the Islamic center, although questioning the wisdom of it (“This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable”). His stance has become political fodder for many Republicans, such as Carl Paladino, candidate for New York governor (“The ground zero mosque is not about freedom of religion, as President Obama claims. It’s about the murderous ideology behind the attacks on our country and the fanatics our troops are fighting every day in the Middle East).

Dedicated effort over time can eventually improve the components of this big picture.

Muslim states can make strides toward tolerance by overturning their blasphemy laws and punishing those who commit religious violence or discrimination. In a small way, Turkey demonstrated a greater degree of tolerance on Sunday when it allowed a rare Christian Orthodox mass at an iconic monastery.

Americans can overcome their bigotry by distinguishing between people who murder in the name of Islam and those who practice its peaceful teachings. And they can learn more about the world’s second-largest religion and its diversity of followers (Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind the Islamic center project, follows Sufism, the mystical form of Islam which is inclusive and honors reconciliation).

US politicians have far bigger challenges than where to place an Islamic cultural and worship center, and would be more helpful if they sought reconciliation between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Of course, that piece of real estate near the missing Twin Towers can’t wait for these changes of thought in America, which could take years or decades. So what can be done now?

It would help both critics and supporters of the center to reread Mr. Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech on US-Muslim relations. As he winds up, he reminds his listeners that all the great religions of the world share a common rule: We should do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

In this case, that would mean backers of the center must understand the perplexed responses and wounded and angry sentiments of their critics – even if those sentiments border on bigotry. And critics should acknowledge the intended purpose of the center – “to celebrate pluralism in the United States, as well as in the Islamic religion,” according to Daisy Khan, of the American Society for Muslim Advancement.

The center’s goal of peace is being defeated by its location. Both sides need to find the time to listen and learn more about each other.

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